Interview with Maria Klawe

Originally Printed in the Summer/Fall 2012 Newsletter

Maria Klawe is Harvey Mudd College’s fifth president. She began her tenure in 2006. A renowned computer scientist and scholar, President Klawe is the first woman to lead the College since its founding in 1955. Prior to joining HMC, she served as dean of engineering and professor of computer science at Princeton University. During her time at Princeton, Maria led the School of Engineering and Applied Science through a strategic planning exercise that created an exciting and widely embraced vision for the school. At Harvey Mudd College, she led a similarly ambitious strategic planning initiative, “HMC 2020: Envisioning the Future.”

Maria joined Princeton from the University of British Columbia where she served as dean of science from 1998 to 2002, vice president of student and academic services from 1995 to 1998 and head of the Department of Computer Science from 1988 to 1995. Prior to UBC, she spent eight years with IBM Research in California, and two years at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. (1977) and B.Sc. (1973) in mathematics from the University of Alberta.

Maria has made significant research contributions in several areas of mathematics and computer science, including functional analysis, discrete mathematics, theoretical computer science, human-computer interaction, gender issues in information technology and interactive-multimedia for mathematics education. Her current research focuses on discrete mathematics.

Klawe is a past president of the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and past chair of the board of trustees of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology. She is on the boards of Microsoft Corporation, Broadcom Corporation, and the nonprofit Math for America. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, a trustee for the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley and a member of both the Stanford Engineering Advisory Council and the Advisory Council for the Computer Science Teachers Association. She was elected as a fellow of the ACM in 1996 and as a founding fellow of the Canadian Information Processing Society in 2006. She has been honored with numerous awards including the CRA Nico Habermann Award.

Q: Many of our readers know about your amazing success at Harvey Mudd, but they may not know about your role in founding CRA-W.  Please tell us a bit about that history and what your involvement in CRA-W has meant to you.

In 1990 I was the first female to be elected to the board of CRA in its twenty year existence. After the first board meeting at Snowbird, Peter Freeman introduced me to Nancy Leveson and over lunch Nancy and I decided to form a committee on the status of women in computing research, CRA-W. Over the next few months, we agreed on a number of key concepts for CRA-W. First, it would be led by co-chairs who would serve a three year term. Second, every person on CRA-W would be a respected CSE researcher. Third, every person would lead a project aimed at increasing the participation and success of women in CSE research. Nancy and I decided to be the first pair of co-chairs and agreed on a list of people to invite to join CRA-W. A few months later, the committee started its work with a day-long meeting to brainstorm about possible projects.  Twenty-one years later, it’s extraordinary to see how much CRA-W has achieved. I often attribute the fact that the percentage of female graduate students in CSE is higher than the percentage of female undergraduate students in CSE to the work of CRA-W.

The creation of CRA-W influenced my own career in many ways. At the time, I was the head of the computer science department at UBC, the only female CS faculty member there and the only female head of a science department. This was before the days of the Hopper conference, so life could be lonely at times. CRA-W provided a vibrant community of female computer scientist friends who shared my passion for getting more women into the field. CRA-W taught me how much a network of a dozen or two leaders could accomplish. From the success of various career mentoring programs like the Academic Career Workshop and the Grad Cohort, I learned how important it is to explicitly present information about the gritty details of building one’s career and coping with the variety of challenges one encounters. And last but not least, CRA-W was and is an outstanding example of how industry, academia and government can collaborate to change the world.

Q: As President of Harvey Mudd, what are your goals and the opportunities to make an impact?

I see Mudd as a lab for innovation in undergraduate science and engineering education, a place where faculty, staff, and students explore how best to educate scientists and engineers so that they are prepared to become leaders who understand the impact of their work on society. Because we are so small and so focused on this mission, we are able to experiment in ways that would not be practical at most places. And when we discover an effective solution to a particular problem, e.g. attracting more females to major in CS, our goal is to broadly disseminate that knowledge. My goal is that Mudd become a beacon and a nexus for improving science and engineering undergraduate education at all kinds of institutions. For example, we are currently partnering with UCSD to explore how a biology-themed version of our intro CS course can be used to help biology majors learn CS.

Q: Much has been written about Mudd’s success in recruiting freshman women to computer science.  What innovative programs do you have for retaining interest?  Are there special efforts to expose women students to research and to encourage graduate school?

One key to the success at Mudd is that we don’t try to con-vince first-year females to major in CS. Rather we try to make their experience learning and doing research in CS fun, interesting and useful. Our goal in the first two courses in the sequence is to persuade them to take the next course since after taking the first three courses most females will decide to do either a major or a minor in CS. From 2007 – 2010 we had a research grant that enabled us to offer research opportunities to female students in the summer before their second year, and we focused on projects that were socially relevant. Most students at Mudd have many opportunities to engage in research which is probably why such a large percentage of our students go on to graduate school.

Q: What has been your career path that brought you to this point? What made you choose computer science?  How did you decide on pursuing an administrative track?  What attracted you to the position you currently hold?

All of my degrees are in pure mathematics and I had never taken a CS course when I finished my Ph.D. in functional analysis in 1977. It was not a good time for pure mathematicians to be looking for academic positions. I applied for 83 positions at various institutions across North America and received one offer, a tenure-track position at Oakland University just north of Detroit. I took the job but hated the experience, mostly for lifestyle reasons (absence of single males, ethnic restaurants, foreign movies, bookstores, etc.). To keep sane, I attended lots of conferences (eight in eight months) and by chance discovered that there were mathematicians who taught in CS departments and that there were tons of jobs in CS departments. I decided to do a second Ph.D. in CS and enrolled at the University of Toronto in fall 1978. My plan was to do all the course work in my first year and my research in the second. Despite the lack of undergrad CS courses, I enrolled in 5 graduate classes for each semester. I worked VERY hard (at least 16 hours a day 7 days a week) and did well. By January, I was getting requests from CS departments to interview for faculty positions. Eventually Toronto asked me to apply for a job there, I did, and they hired me as an assistant professor in July 1979. In September of that year, I met Nick Pippenger, a theoretical computer scientist at IBM Research. We were engaged a few weeks later, married the next May, and in July 1980, moved to be part of a new theory group at IBM Research in San Jose. For the next fifteen years I worked in theoretical computer science at the interface of mathematics and CS. I feel incredibly lucky to have had this opportunity to be part of both fields.

My first move into administration was in 1984 at IBM Research in San Jose as the manager of a new discrete mathematics group. A year later, I was made the manager of a new department, Mathematics and Related Computer Science, with Maria and her husband, Nick five research groups. IBM provided outstanding management training, something that has helped me throughout my career. The experience at IBM made me realize that I loved leading groups especially during time of growth.

In 1988, Nick and I moved to the University of British Columbia where I became Head of Computer Science with the mandate to build it into a world-class department. I was the first female faculty member in CS, the first female head of a science department, the eleventh female faculty member (out of 300) in science and the fourth female full professor. Working with the CS department to build a great department turned out to be one of my best experiences ever. The faculty, staff and students were amazing. We didn’t have nearly enough resources to compete for faculty on the basis of salary and start- up funding but we made up for it by making the department an incredible place to work.

During my time as Head of CS, many people told me they thought I’d make a great university president so when a senior vice-president role at UBC opened up in late 1994, I decided to be a candidate to find out whether I liked senior administration. The VP for Student and Academic Services was responsible for all student services, libraries, IT, athletics and housing. I had two goals for that position. First, to make UBC students feel that they mattered to the institution, and second, to come up with a plan and resources to network the campus and provide all faculty with computers. During my three and a half years as VP SAS, we made great progress on both goals.

I realized, however, that I was much happier in leadership roles responsible for the academic side of the university than the services side, and as a result was delighted to become the Dean of Science in fall 1998. During my four years as Dean of Science at UBC, the number of female faculty doubled from 24 to 48.

A year before becoming Dean, I also took on another role at UBC, namely a five year appointment as the NSERC-IBM Chair for Women in Science and Engineering for BC and the Yukon. This was one of five regional chairs in Canada with the responsibility of increasing female participation in science and engineering. While it was unusual to combine this NSERC chair with a senior administrative position, NSERC, IBM and UBC all agreed to it because they realized that I was already heavily engaged in these activities and the two roles could leverage each other. As a result of the additional resources committed by UBC to this program, we were able to recruit Anne Condon, a former CRA-W co-chair, to UBC. Anne was the third female faculty member in CS; the second was Gail Murphy, a current member of the CRA-W board. During the five years of my NSERC chair appointment, the percentage of CS majors who were female increased from 16% to 27%, and the number of female CS faculty increased from 2 to 7.

In January 2003, I moved to Princeton as the first female Dean of Engineering. Nick followed six months later after our daughter Sasha finished high school. I hated leaving UBC, one of my favorite universities in the world, but I had decided that if I truly wanted to change the culture of science and engineering to be more supportive of women and under-represented groups, I needed to work on it in the United States because the United States is the center of science and engineering.  In my three and half years at Princeton, we created a new strategic vision for the engineering school that transformed its culture, making it much more interdisciplinary and more supportive of females at all levels.

Nick and I moved to Harvey Mudd College in July 2006 where I became the fifth president. As with all the positions I had held since moving to UBC, I was the first female in the role. I hadn’t expected to leave Princeton so soon, but Nick and I fell in love with the faculty and students at Mudd, and their incredible commitment to a vibrant learning community. Our six years here have been wonderful. As in Princeton, the first step was to work with the entire community to create a new strategic vision for the college. In the following five years, we have made great strides in implementing the vision. We have made huge progress in increasing the diversity of our students and faculty (though we still have a long way to go in recruiting more African-American students). When I arrived, about 30% of the students and faculty were female. Today about 45% of the students and over 40% of the faculty are female. Our faculty have designed and launched a wonderful new core curriculum, and an amazing new Teaching Learning Building is under construction. And importantly, we are becoming much better known for our innovation and excellence, which is a critical step in achieving our goals.

Q: What are your current technical interests and how have they evolved over time?

I still love discrete mathematics and theoretical computer science, and I have had a deep interest in the use of technology to improve K-12 math education since 1992. In 2002 I added an interest in assistive technologies for individuals with cognitive deficits.

Q: What role has professional service played in your career?

I have been heavily involved with professional societies throughout my career. I have served on the boards or councils of several in mathematics (CMS, AMS, SIAM) as well as in computer science (CRA, ACM) as well as Vice President and then President of ACM. I’ve also been on a number of boards of non-profits (Anita Borg Institute, Math for Amer-ica, CSTA) and research institutes (Geometry Center, IPAM, MSRI, Simons Institute for Theoretical Computer Science). In addition I have served on many program and organizing committees for conferences and workshops. I have found these activities highly rewarding because it’s possible to get significant things achieved, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to build a network of friends with similar passions.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your career right now?  What drives you at this point in your career?

I love working with teams of people to make the world better in large and small ways. I love having so many opportunities to work on different projects related to advancing women in science and engineering and on improving math education. And I adore interacting with the Mudd students.

Q:   What challenges have you had to overcome as a woman leader in the field?  What has been the most difficult aspect of your career?

As the first female in so many of my positions, I have faced more suspicion and scrutiny than many male leaders would. This is acerbated by my passion for change, my (putting it mildly) assertive personality, and my lack of sense of self-preservation. As my son once put it, I repeatedly run full-speed into brick walls so that others can learn from my mistakes. Fortunately I am belatedly learning more tact and  better listening skills.

Q:  What accomplishments throughout your career are you most proud of ?

Building the CS department at UBC, increasing the percentage of female faculty and students at UBC, Princeton, and HMC, creating and helping implement the strategic visions at Princeton and HMC, co-founding CRA-W, helping grow the Anita Borg Institute, my marriage to Nick and our two wonderful children, Janek and Sasha, and maintaining my career as a serious artist.

Q: In what other activities that support women in computing have you been involved?

In addition to CRA-W, the NSERC Chair, ABI and Hopper, I have participated in various workshops for graduate students and junior faculty. I give talks about increasing the participation of women in computing at several universities, tech companies and conferences each year. I mentor several women at different stages in their careers each year.

Q: How do you balance work, life outside of work, and family?

The balance has changed at different stages of my career. Before we had children, I focused primarily on my career, but also spent time traveling, with friends, etc. After we started a family for several years, both Nick and I did nothing other than work and do things with our children. It was a heavenly phase. As the children grew older, we gradually reintroduced other things into our lives. For example I painted much more, spent more time running, etc. Now that our children are 30 and 27, we have tons of time to do stuff outside work … but of course we still spend a lot of time working because we love it (and yes, being a president is time-consuming).

Q: Do you have any advice about the challenges for 2-career couples?

Look for institutions (academia and industry) that are helpful. Let employers know sooner rather than later that this is an issue.

Q: Do you have any advice for women at any stage of their careers?

Pick important things to work on. Recruit others to your team. Persist especially when success seems in doubt. Regularly reevaluate your strategy and be willing to change if necessary. Ask for help when you need it.